The letters – written on khaki-colored YMCA stationery – begin with loving salutations like “My Dear Byrdie” and “My Own Dear Baby” and “My Dear Sweetheart”. They close with a little more formality: “With all good wishes, I am” and “I am as ever” though occasionally a little sweetness creeps in: “Yours until death” and “With all my love and kisses”. He signs them as “A. J. Jack Stratton.”
Andrew Jack Stratton (The Engineer’s grandfather, affectionally called Pops) penned the letters to Jakie Byrd Wright (The Engineer’s grandmother, affectionately known as Maw) as he wooed, then courted, and eventually married her on April 20, 1918, a scant three months before he shipped out to France to take his place in history by serving as a Doughboy in the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) of World War I.
In late 2000, I found the bundle of love letters Pops wrote his new bride during World War I, all 67 letters held together with a piece of orange yarn. They are so precious and such a treasure of family history, I set about replicating a set for each family member, scanning the letters and creating a collage of scanned stamps, postmarks, and addresses that I printed then cut, folded, and glued into envelopes. Once all the letters had been recreated and stuffed into envelopes, I tied them together with a piece of orange yarn and put each set in one of the antique wooden boxes I’d been quietly collecting.
Because some of the letters were near illegible, I transcribed each one and put together a little book along with the little research I had time to do about the places and events mentioned in the letters. As I worked, I channeled Pops and Maw through the silver Mont Blanc fountain pen that Pops actually used to write the letters, his name inscribed on the barrel.
Through his letters, we get to know the young Jack and the woman he loves, Jakie Byrd. We witness his flirting, his declarations of undying love, his pledges to stay away from the French wines. We are with him when he checks in at Camp Lee, as he petitions his Captain with a plan to get his sweetheart to visit, and later as he finally sees land from the boat as he arrives in Europe. We feel his homesickness, his angst at not being promoted, his eagerness to “show the Kaiser what the US boys can do.”
The centenary of World War I began in 2014 and continues through 2018, so it seems a fine time to dust off the letters and give them another read. Maybe do some more extensive research about where and how he served. Though the letters are deliberately devoid of details and effusive emotion to allow them to pass through the hands of censors, much can still be gleaned about Pops, Maw, and so-called War to End All Wars, and the climate of America at the time. We know so much about history thanks to handwritten letters, and I fear how much will be lost to future generations because, really, who’s going to sit down and sift through the thousands of emails in our computers? Preserving history – especially primary source history – is not an expenditure of time, but an investment. So let’s get out the pens and paper and write more letters. It’s a fine legacy to leave, and our posterity will thank us. I’m sure of it.
In Our Own Language 4:18
Nancy (my developmentally disabled sister-in-law) draws.
I (the woman who flat-out loves her) stitch.
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